Plastic pollution and the climate crisis are two inseparable parts of the same problem.
Plastic pollution and the climate crisis are two inseparable parts of the same problem, though they aren’t treated as such. Many countries have implemented plastic bag charges and plastic straw bans while action to phase out fossil fuels lags far behind, due in part to the inertia of the huge oil and gas companies that dominate the sector. Just 20 of these firms are responsible for 35% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1965. How will they adapt as fossil fuel demand wanes with the rise of renewable energy and battery power? The answer is plastic – and that shift is already well underway.
Cheap plastic is made using chemicals produced in the process of making fuel. Petroleum refining transforms crude oil extracted from the ground into gasoline, producing ethane as a byproduct. A decade ago, the advent of fracking – hydraulic fracturing of oil or natural gas – made the raw materials for plastics significantly cheaper. Fracking shale gas produces lots of ethane, which is turned into ethylene – the building block for many hard-to-recycle plastic products, like packaging films, sachets and bottles. There are few facilities worldwide that can dispose of or recycle this kind of plastic efficiently. They’re expensive to set up and run and there’s little demand for using the recycled material to make new products. While packaging is the single largest source of plastic demand, most of that is thrown away as soon as it’s removed, with one third of it estimated to go directly to domestic waste and either incineration or landfill. In much of the world, a lot of it goes directly into the environment.
Reducing fuel consumption won’t necessarily solve the plastic problem. Global plastic production is expected to double in the next 15 years even as demand for gasoline wanes. In 2017, 50% of all crude oil produced worldwide was refined into fuel for transport, most as gasoline. Electric vehicles and more efficient forms of public transport mean gasoline demand is falling. The oil and gas companies who own these refineries are instead gearing up to turn what is now excess fuel into plastics for packaging.
In a climate crisis, plastic waste doesn’t look like the world’s most pressing environmental problem. But considering plastic and climate as two separate issues is a mistake. Concern about plastic pollution isn’t distracting people from a more serious problem – plastic is the problem. If we see plastics as “solid climate change”, they become central to the climate crisis. (source: theconversation.com)
As consumers we do have a great power: we can choose to buy plastic free products, to help ourselves and the environment.
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